Dr. Susan Steen
Air Force Culture and Language Center Assistant Professor of Cross-Cultural Communication
Recently, I read a story in BBC’s travel section by an English woman who had moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Not long after she arrived, she was invited to a party at the home of a new friend, and on the appointed evening showed up on her friend’s doorstep a few minutes after the party was scheduled to begin. When the door opened she was surprised to be greeted by her slightly annoyed hostess, wrapped in a towel and dripping from her recent shower, pointing to the festive food still stacked in bags and making it clear that she wasn’t ready yet — neither the host nor the house was “party-prepared.” The English newcomer had committed a social faux pas – arriving at a party right when it was scheduled to start.
The article goes on to characterize Brazilians, especially those from Rio, as having a very relaxed approach to time, attributed in part to the laid-back beach lifestyle and the constant traffic delays that make it difficult to get anywhere on time. In fact, the country is described as having a climate of delay – in everything from work-related meetings, to public events, to gathering with friends for a social occasion. As the author quickly learned, even the phrase used for “I’m arriving” doesn’t necessarily mean I’m arriving NOW, but that I PLAN to arrive at some point in the (hopefully) near future.
(You can access the full story here: http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20180729-why-brazilians-are-always-late)
If you’ve ever traveled in different countries, you might have experienced something like this yourself. I have, on many occasions. I vividly remember traveling with an American colleague and friend in Latin America (an expert on the region, who had previously lived there for many years). During the course of our field trip, we planned to connect with some local counterparts. We arrived for our meeting at the appointed time, and were politely asked to take a seat in a waiting area until our colleagues also arrived. My friend sank back into his chair, leaned forward over his knees, clasped his hands, and ducked his head, breathing out a long sigh. He looked like he was going into a meditative trance, so I asked what he was doing. “We’re going to be here awhile,” he replied. “I’m going into my Latin American waiting mode.”
Latin American waiting mode! Brazilian party faux pas! What’s going on here?
One explanation can be found in cultural differences in perspectives on time. Brazil, and many countries in Latin America, are among those with polychronic approaches to time, as described by anthropologist Edward T. Hall, who is considered a founding father of intercultural communication. The U.S., on the other hand, is typically described as monochronic. Together, these two opposite-ends-of-the-spectrum terms represent a dimension of nonverbal communication known as chronemics – the study of how we view, understand, and structure time. And this varies widely across different cultures.
Consider these idioms/proverbs from different countries and regions of the world. Do you recognize any of these? What do you interpret them to mean? Which ones would you say represent monochronic vs. polychronic cultures?
– The early bird gets the worm
– In the ditch where water has flowed, it will flow again
– Time is money
– The night rinses what the day has soaped
– Early to bed, early to rise – makes one healthy, wealthy and wise
– The afternoon knows what the morning never suspected
– A stitch in time saves nine
– Just because you wake up early doesn’t mean the dawn will come any faster
– Do not push the river; it will flow by itself
– Don’t shake the tree when the pears fall off by themselves
People in cultures with a monochronic time orientation view time as linear, adhere closely to demands of the clock, and tend to prefer doing one thing at a time. Time in these cultures can be thought of as akin to a commodity – a resource to be saved, spent, or wasted. Time is often segmented into blocks. We might set aside exercise time; we also have family time; we have leisure time; work time, etc. Punctuality (or something approaching it) is valued, and running significantly late would normally require some kind of excuse, explanation, or perhaps apology.
In polychronic time, interaction is governed far less by the clock, and more by a focus on human relationships. Time flows and encircles; it cannot be rushed; many tasks and conversations can be incorporated into the same moment. It would be considered far more important to finish a meaningful conversation with a friend or lend a hand to a colleague than to rush off, leaving the conversation unfinished or the co-worker in need, because of an impending appointment. In a meeting involving people from polychronic cultures, a person with monochronic orientation might find herself surprised or overwhelmed by all of the activity taking place – it’s not at all unusual, nor is considered impolite, for multiple interruptions to occur. Other people might pop in and out, phone calls might come in, people might stop and listen to announcements on the radio, etc. This is simply the way of life – it’s not intended to signal lack of engagement, or attention, or courtesy.
This is not to say that we don’t all have individual tendencies related to time, no matter what the predominant cultural pattern may be. I am from the US, but my own husband will tell you that I don’t pay much attention to “clock-time” and I have a penchant for running late. I loved the good-ole-days before cell phones with their insistent atomic clocks that track everything precisely to the second and are all in sync. (Back in those days, one could truthfully say “Oh, my watch says it’s 7:30 right now! Yours says 7:35?”)
Militaries, of course, have their own special interpretation and norms of time, regardless of the broader cultural context. Having made the leap from civilian higher education to PME, I learned soon after joining the AFCLC that if you’re not 10 minutes early, you’re late. Notwithstanding individual preference or within-group norms, however, our collective culture’s values involving time do affect us, and shape how we live. So, for example, if I’m running behind schedule and arrive late to a planned dinner party, I know that I need to apologize, because I have violated a cultural norm of “be-on-time” – even if social occasions are slightly more relaxed than work-related functions.
Our culture’s orientations towards time are linked in some ways to other aspects of culture, and we’ll explore some of those in future posts. For now, though, I hope this discussion of chronemics has offered some insights into ways that different cultures and regions approach and use time. And, if nothing else, you might have a new vocabulary term to throw into the mix the next time you are running late (hey, I’m just a polychromic guy/gal!). In the meantime — let’s all make the most of every moment – or, in other words, let’s “make hay while the sun shines.”